I was hoping someone would email me about how I could improve “dinosaur fiction.” Didn’t happen. What did happen: an email about the finer points of describing a character in a novel.
Character description is a delicate art, too often clumsily handled when tried deliberately. In some instances, the work beckons that you park on the description lot. That is, if your work beckons for failure.
That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.
My name is Cindy Kennedy. My question is about descriptions. What’s the best way to describe your main character in your novel? I’ve seen a couple of ways to do it, but I’d like to know the best way.
You’re right. I’ve only seen a couple of ways myself. The wrong way and the right way. That’s your couple.
I want to see what you think of my main character description so far, if you don’t mind:
Lynn sighed, wiping away a lock of her platinum blonde hair. Her sad blue eyes stared back at her from within the mirror. She never liked her round face nor her chubby hands. They weren’t pretty. She held them to her ruddy cheeks, trying to press her face downward and make it thinner, but it made her plump lips look like a fish puckering up for a kiss. It wouldn’t work like that, she found, unless she got a replacement set of lips as well. A single tear coursed down her cheek and to her stubby chin. She hated that too.
Let me know what you think. Thanks!
—Cindy Kennedy, Flint, MI.
You’re cheating here, Cindy. You’ve turned what should be a travesty into a plot point. The plot may turn out to be a travesty too, but my crystal ball’s been on the blink as of late. I’ll get back to you on this.
I won’t elaborate on the wrong way to describe characters, since countless others already put that on display for their audiences. As for the right way? Simple. Tell the story. But wait, didn’t you do just that here? If you’re advancing the plot with a description, that’s not ingenuity. That’s contrivance. Don’t do that.
Weak writers will pause to describe; strong writers will forge ahead with the narrative and work the descriptions into it.
For example, instead of this:
“Robert had a lanky frame, something that didn’t work too well for him, being a pilot by trade. His flowering red hair made him quite a standout, and it gave him fits when he tried stuffing it into his cap.”
Go with something like this:
“Robert strained to cram his lanky frame into the cockpit, a feat that still took some doing, even after a decade of piloting. After getting himself situated at last, he awkwardly stuffed his flowering red hair into his cap, an ordeal that took even more doing.”
You get the drift. In the first example, nothing “happens.” We’re in descriptive stasis. While you can glean the same details from both, you’ll find more vibrancy in the second example. And you can do that sort of thing without conjuring up some contrived way to describe your character.
We could go on and on here, touching on “description through dialogue” and its cheesiness, along with how everything I just said here doesn’t apply to description of scenery and setting.
Tell the story. The description will come. Be creative and work it in there on the fly. Keep that bus moving. Don’t stall your readers by insisting they know what someone looks like all at once. Do your job the right way, and we’ll get it.
Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and found on your nearest baby free range.